“She will come down here because she is hungry, and we are the freshest meat…”
I’m a sucker for horror movies set during World War II. I’m not sure why that is, but part of it is probably listening to my grandfather when I was little. I’d sit in the garage at his feet while he told stories about bombing whales thinking they were submarines, the time he had to hand-crank the nose wheel down during landing after the engines failed, and how his best friend, the tail gunner, was killed when plane was nearly shot down after a bombing run.
I might have been 7 or 8.
Whatever the reason, I’ll inevitably give a horror movie a try if it’s got Nazis and zombies, or U-boats and ghosts, or… well, you get the gist. Sometimes that bites me in the ass – hello Oasis of the Zombies – but usually I find something to enjoy, even if they’re only World War II adjacent (like Shock Waves or Dead Snow).
Last night I’d planned, again, to watch something by Stuart Gordon. I wanted to take a minute and clear up my queue on Amazon Prime, though, and while I was doing that I came across The Devil’s Rock. I don’t even remember adding it, but I was immediately taken by the description, which made it sound like a serious horror version of Hellboy’s origin.
So. From Beyond waits at least another day.
I watched this on Amazon Prime. It’s also streaming for free on Tubi (with ads). It can be purchased or rented on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and via Microsoft. There’s no Blu-ray release in the US, but you can get a region free release from Canada (and Region B releases in Germany, Spain and the UK).
The Devil’s Rock is a New Zealand production, the only feature film (so far) by Paul Campion who worked as a matte paint for films like Sin City and Constantine. He’s also directed a few short films, and I feel like I should check out his Night of the Hell Hamsters based purely on the title.
On the eve of D-Day, two New Zealand commandos arrive on one of the Channel Islands, planning to destroy the German gun emplacement there. This is part of a distraction campaign to keep German forces from discovering Operation Overlord. Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) and Sergeant Joe Tane (Karlos Drinkwater) make their way through a mined beach and up to the gun, where they plant charges. Joe can’t wait to be done and on his way back to a promised hookup on the mainland. Ben is still mourning his dead wife, however, and won’t be cajoled into joining Joe on a double date.
A series of screams from the bunker itself – and the appearance of an unlucky German soldier – send Ben into the tunnels below, looking for what he thinks might be a captured Allied soldier or too. Joe reluctantly follows, but in the maze of tunnels they’re separated.
I’m all in at this point. The characters are economically drawn, but well played and I feel like I know them a little just by their interaction. The setting is wonderfully ominous – moonlit clouds, looming fortifications and half-lit tunnels filled with echoing screams. By the time Joe finds a radio room with a mangled corpse and a book of black magic I was seriously starting to wonder why I hadn’t heard more about this film.
Though the installation seems, at first, to be filled only with corpses, it turns out that there are at least two other living things there. Joe is surprised and killed, Ben is captured and tortured and his tormenter – SS Colonel Meyer (Matthew Sunderland) – tries to pry information out of the reluctant commando while a woman screams from an upstairs room. (Minor annoyance – Sunderland doesn’t even try to affect a German accent. Normally not an issue, but the film makes a point of his character being able to figure out Ben’s accent without ever explaining his own.)
The movie starts to lose steam a little here. While both Hall and Sunderland are decent actors the script itself isn’t quite up to task of keeping your attention with their fairly tepid cat-and-mouse discussions. I was much more interested in the screaming – especially when Sunderland takes a bucket of body parts up to the room and throws it at someone just off screen. Even when Ben escapes and chases the Nazi into the tunnels I was still just waiting for him to get back upstairs and see who – or what – was in that room.
The occupant of the room upstairs turns out to look just like the Captain’s dead wife, Helena. Of course it isn’t – the Nazis have been up to all sorts of dark business on the remote island – but she almost succeeds in getting Ben to free her from her iron chains before Colonel Meyer returns, shooting Ben in the leg and ‘Helena’ in the head.
Don’t worry. She gets better.
The movie becomes a race for the two men to figure out a way to send the demon – for that’s what the thing upstairs truly is – back to hell. We’re meant to be interested in whether the men can trust each other enough to accomplish the task, and if they can manage it before the demon gets loose.
Unfortunately, with the main mystery explained the film seems to shrink, somehow. (Explanations are the death of many a horror movie setup.) The two actors are fine, but they and the script aren’t up to the task of keeping us interested during all the exposition and the fantastic location is reduced to one room. Gina Varela as the demon is also good, but her “appear as your loved one to seduce” act isn’t anything we haven’t seen a hundred times. Her demon makeup is also good, but very classic “red skin, black horns” – all Tim Curry in Legend – with little distinctively monstrous about it. (And the film even shies away from showing us her eating habits, which might have gone a long way towards making her more terrifying.) In some ways it begins to feel less like a feature film and more like an episode of Supernatural, chalk circles and all.
There are a few twists and turns in the tale before reaching the end, so I’ll leave those surprises – though you may well see them coming, as I did – for you, should you choose to watch the film. I DID enjoy the movie, it’s just that it squanders the promise of something unique for a story I feel like I’ve seen many times before, even if not quite in this setting.
The Bottom Line
The Devil’s Rock has atmosphere to spare, good characters, and tells a decent enough story about men in war time dealing with a creature from hell itself. There are a lot of opportunities for deeper meaning squandered however – throwaway lines about “who’s the real monster” aside – and it ends up feeling like something you’ve seen before. Which seems weird to say about a movie with Nazi summoned demons on a Channel island during World War II.